These are the champions. You can just use your imagination that I'm singing that in some seriously overhyped, operatic or symphonic way. But, the reality is that I am truly excited because the one championship that trumps all others at the club level, the Champions League, made their official group draws today.
Quick explanation for any soccer newcomers: Imagine that any of the sports you already enjoy (football, baseball, basketball, hockey, etc.) had the equivalent of five or six NBAs or MLBs or NFLs, each in a separate country, all in relative proximity to each other. So, if the NBA was in the United States, there would be an equivalent in Mexico, Canada and maybe a lesser but competitive league also in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Cuba. So, we're talking different levels, but high amounts of talent in each of these leagues. Then we take the champions, and generally the top three of four teams from each of those countries, then add play-in teams from Honduras, Jamaica and a few other small Central American countries and put all of the "best of the best" in any of the given sports in a tournament that plays out over the course of the season.
That really should be pretty simple and clear. It would be like Canada having their own basketball league that had a few teams that were at the same level as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. Same goes for Mexico, while smaller countries like Costa Rica, Cuba and Honduras would probably have competition similar to the level of the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans and Boston Celtics.
If you don't follow basketball, I've probably completely lost you by now. So pay attention: The Champions League is a season-long tournament that features the best teams from every country that is part of the European football association, UEFA.
The tournament beings anew with each season of football in Europe. All the clubs that win, or place in the top few spots of each major league in Europe qualify for the tournament. All the small countries and clubs of Europe get involved in a playoff for the few remaining spots. On the business end, you want to be in the tournament because it will get you more money and exposure. You can read about just how much money, here. There are a lot of variables, but the article points out that an English team that wins the Champions League currently stands to make around 100 million euros. And that is just from the Champions League, not including anything that they take in from their domestic partnerships, leagues and tournaments. Insane.
Are you all caught up now? No. Well, do better.
So, that brings us to the great news - the Champions League draw took place yesterday, August 27. The draw slots the four teams into eight groups. Each team plays a home and away match against the other three teams in their group. After those six matches, the top two teams advance to the knockout stages of the tournament while the bottom two drop out. In the knockout stages, you play a home and away leg and the aggregate score after the two matches determines the winner. I could make it more complex, but you don't really care, do you?
Each of the groups are seeded. The idea is that all groups will be somewhat balanced, some really good and some really obscure teams. Balancing is never perfect, but who actually cares? The top seed in each group is reserved for the top eight teams in Europe, based on a series of weighted coefficients that I won't bother to explain. Let's just point out that their system is sophisticated and it works very well. Then the second tier teams, then third tier and then the small fish at the bottom. The only other thing to know: you can't be drawn against a team from your own country in the group stage, so Bayern can't be in a group with Dortmund or Wolfsburg or Arminia Bielefeld. Likewise, no groups of Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, though it might be fun to watch.
As always, I focus on the team I love - Bayern Munich. They are in the Champions League, which is basically customary, and seeded in the top eight, which means they were drawn against teams from pools two, three and four. And the results? Well...
Really? Again!? Here is the cool thing about the Champions League, you tend to see really, really good teams playing each other. And since they are from other countries, you usually get a few really good matchup of contrasting styles, locales, supporters, etc. Where the system seems to really fail? Well, ask Dortmund and Real Madrid if they like playing each other...multiple years consecutively. As for Arsenal? I should know the exact number of years we have now been matched with Arsenal either in group play or the knockout stages, but I'm pretty sure this is the fourth consecutive year we will face them. It's actually getting boring at this point. The good news: we are better than them by a good margin and have yet to finish behind/be eliminated by them. If that is your toughest opposition, you have a pretty good indicator that Bayern will be advancing to the knockout stages of the competition for something like the 7th or 8th consecutive year, which is a very good thing.
I don't really have much to say about them. They are a quality side as far as a third pool team is concerned and playing an away match against them should be challenging. However, there is a gulf of talent and confidence between Bayern and Olympiacos. If you're really stretching for some sort of context of the German giants and their Greek counterparts, you probably grab at the low-hanging fruit of the economy and European Union. But hey, I'm American and I don't care about that at all because I'm ignorant and uncultured in all things non-sports related! Olympiacos is a long shot for reaching the knockout stages, but they have a match better chance of pushing Bayern and Arsenal than...
This is what is referred to, sympathetically, as the minnow. A smaller club in a more unstable region of Europe. I remember some matches in the Champions League needing to be moved last year due to violence and bombing in the Ukraine. Ugly, sad scenes. And this is where Bayern always stumbles. BATE Borisov made Bayern look pedestrian a few years ago and the Reds seem to hate going to play in these smaller eastern bloc countries. Croatia will be an interesting road trip for the boys, but even a falter on the road won't cause them any worry or harm when they play the home match against Dinamo.
There you have it! The Bayern Champions League draw for 2015-16 group stage opponents was kind. The team won't have to play any terrifying teams and should be expected to advance and probably even win the group which would set them up nicely for the knockout stages. Of course, nothing is certain so we will just have to wait and see...
As for the rest of the draw...well... ugh. It's a bit of a bizarro year, as many of the top teams in their groups were the second team drawn in. And, in general, there appears to be a great deal of parity, or at least a lack of any "group of death" as we are used to seeing with every single soccer tournament that has ever existed on the planet.
Group A seems to be a lock for Real Madrid to advance, and I would assume that PSG should also advance. Group B would favor Manchester United, though the next best team is...? Wolfsburg is a strong team, but they'll need to turn their major haul for the sale of Kevin De Bruyne into some new talent in the next three days before the close of the transfer window or their Champions League hopes will be severely damaged, though the financial health of the club appears to be secured. No one likes going to Russia to play soccer, so the trip to Moscow will suck for everyone, giving them the advantage at home, though I doubt they are able to capitalize. But, PSV isn't convincing. Maybe Wolfsburg or CSKA Moskva can pass over PSV and join Man U in the knockout stages? Maybe a fun group to watch after all.
Group C is for the casual to non-fan of soccer. Not in the skill sense, but in the opportunity to watch a few teams that aren't English or Spanish giants. Atletico has given Real all the run for kings of Madrid recently and they have to be favorites to advance from this group while Benfica and Galatasaray are always strong contenders for second place in whatever grouping they enter. Either team would have to be a strong contender for the Europa League when one of them eventually joins minnow Astana in being eliminated.
Group D is probably the de facto "group of death" this year. Juventus made a deeper than expected run last year, but lost key piece Arturo Vidal to Bayern Munich and were lucky to advance as far as they did, though luck is a key ingredient to success. Manchester City just splashed big to add Kevin De Bruyne, but that probably isn't enough to make them a Champions League winner. They routinely get run out of the knockout stages, which probably is more of knock on how English soccer just runs their teams into the ground by running so many domestic competitions. It would be a mild upset if either team failed to advance, but Sevilla and Borussia Monchengladbach are strong second-tier teams in their respective domestic leagues. Any group that features teams from England, Italy, Spain and Germany will showcase great atmosphere, star players, and sophisticated styles of play. This is probably the most intriguing group based on those combinations and contrasts.
Barcelona will win Group E, probably without breaking stride. Bayer Leverkusen should perform well, but they have a tendency to come up short on the European stage. If they fail to perform, Roma could swoop in and get back into the knockout stages. BATE is still sneaking into the CL, but they aren't fooling anyone about their chances. Group F is Bayern's to lose, which they shouldn't. Like Barcelona, Chelsea should stroll through their group stage in Group G. Porto should join them in advancing, as Dynamo Kyiv and Macabi Tel-Aviv are not strong sides.
Group H rounds it up and is a bit of a dud. I'm not even remotely interested in watching Zenit, Lyon or Gent. The only team that could present something entertaining for me would be Valencia. Likely, Zenit and Valencia advance, but with enough "meh" in all of these teams, Lyon could always sneak through and then we'd have to deal with maybe two French teams in the knockout stages. Gross.
by Daniel Coughlin (@xvanwilderx)